Fountain of Youth

Lawrence Welk, Pete Fountain and Mardi Gras

The Lawrence Welk Show performs at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, c. 1958. Pete Fountain is in the middle of the trio, on the clarinet. Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library.

Most people don’t think of Lawrence Welk and Mardi Gras as having much in common, but the two actually go hand-in-hand – or maybe that should be “clarinet-in-hand.” Because what the two share is one very particular
thing: the magical jazz music of Pete Fountain.

Pete Fountain was born in New Orleans in 1930, and by the age of 16 was playing jazz on his clarinet down on Bourbon Street. For the next 20 years, he played with numerous bands in New Orleans, some of them considered to be the best jazz players in the world. Then, in ’57, he was chosen to join “The Lawrence Welk Show.” For the following two years, Fountain was “the most famous jazz musician on television.”

After his time on television, Fountain returned to New Orleans and opened his own jazz club, but his music continued to spread beyond the French Quarter. Fountain has appeared on numerous television shows and specials, and has played for presidents and the pope. And then, of course, there are the 100-and-counting recordings of his music.

But in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras, Pete Fountain is most famous for his Half-Fast Walking Club. Started in 1961 over dinner at Frankie and Johnny’s, the first group consisted of 28 people and a three-piece band. In the 50 years since that inaugural walk, membership has swelled to around 250, with many more musicians and a few small floats.

But the route remains the same: an early morning start at Commander’s Palace, parading down St. Charles Avenue, and followed by meanderings through the French Quarter until the afternoon ends at the Riverfront Hilton, jazz music playing all the way.

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